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“You remind me of my wife! She’s also Asian.”

PC: Wong Sze Yuen

Here’s a test. Do the women in this image look similar to you? What about the men? If you did not grow up in a community where Asian people were the dominant race, you may have answered yes to both of these questions.

As a minority, I’ve heard the phrase “you look just like another Asian person I know!” many times as I began venturing outside of the comfort of my hometown. I grew up in a racially homogenous community – about 80% of my high school was Asian. Since coming to Colby, I have found that I sometimes have trouble telling those from other races apart: for example, white women with blonde hair can sometimes look very similar to me, even if they have no other similar characteristics. This phenomenon is called the Own-Race Effect (ORE), or the Same Race Effect. The Own-Race Effect is defined as the human tendency to better recognize people of your own race compared to those of a different race. For example, while I, an Asian woman, may be able to easily differentiate between the only two Asian students in class, a non Asian person  may have a harder time doing so. But when does this effect begin to take place? Is it ingrained into us at birth? Or is it learned? 

Many studies have discovered that newborns show no preference for any face, they view them all equally. However, by 3 months, babies who grew up in a non-racially diverse community showed preference for own-race faces. Those who had interactions with people from many different races didn’t show a preference for any race (Anzures, 2013). From this, we can see that we begin developing preferences for faces of our own race at around 3 months. If we are given less exposure to other race faces from birth to our first birthday, we seem to be able to recognize own-race faces much better. This is because we develop a better scanning system for faces of our own race. At 9 months, children can automatically categorize faces into two categories: own-race vs. other-race. For own-race faces, the infants scan them for longer, taking in each feature. This means they spend more time processing and attending to features on own-race faces, allowing them to remember them better than other-race faces.

Photo credits: Bar-Haim, Ziv, Lamy, Hodes.
Bar graph showing the amount of time infants of each group spent looking at African/Caucasian faces.

This sets the stage for better holistic processing of same race faces compared to other race faces. But what is holistic processing? We all use this process in our daily lives. During holistic processing, we analyze the relationship between features and how they combine to make up the face as a whole. So why does ORE occur? Well, we have a harder time recognizing or distinguishing other-race faces simply because we don’t process them holistically. This effect can be seen through early childhood as well. Like stated in the previous paragraph, children aged 9 months scan and categorize own-race faces, basically holistically processing them. If we don’t holistically process other-race faces, we inevitably will be less likely to recognize them than for own-race faces. 

However, there are some exceptions to the own-race rule. While preference for own race faces in infants is typically more prominent in those who live in racially homogenous communities, there are some exceptions. In a 2006 study by Bar-Haim, Ziv, Lamy, and Hodes, they studied Caucasian Israeli, African Ethiopian, and African Israeli infants. These infants were shown African and Caucasian faces in one frame, then their vision was tracked to see which faces they directed their attention towards. In the image on the left, the graph shows that infants of Caucasian-Israeli and African-Ethiopian descent looked at own-race faces for longer periods of time, attending to them for longer. Surprisingly, African Israeli infants did not display any racial preferences according to the “look time:” they spent pretty much equal amounts of time looking at African faces and Caucasian faces. This could be attributed to the fact that African Israelis are an extremely small ethnic minority, so they are exposed to many people of other races or ethnic groups. This once again shows that familiarity for certain faces develops during childhood.

Photo credits: Sangrigoli, Pallier, Argenti, Ventureyra, Schonen
Examples of images used in their study.

Additionally, children who are adopted into families of different races (ex. Korean children adopted into a white family) are better able to recognize white faces than Asian faces, showing that the environment children grow up in is important for the development of the Own Race Effect. This effect is extremely plastic, or malleable, at a young age. To prove this, Sangrigoli, Pallier, Argenti, Ventureyra, and Schonen tested Caucasians, native Koreans, and Koreans who had been adopted into white families in France between the ages of 3 and 9. They used digitized grayscale photographs of Asian and Caucasian faces (seen above), and participants were asked to match photos to a target. For the native Koreans and Caucasians, accuracy was higher for faces of their own race. However, for the adopted Koreans, they were more accurate with the Caucasian faces. These findings indicate that immersion into a completely different racial environment from a young age can erase the already-developed expertise for own-race faces from infancy.

To summarize, the own race effect (ORE) begins from as young as 3 months old. At 9 months, we begin to automatically categorize faces into own-race/other-race. Our facial recognition for those of other races is lower because we do not process them as a whole. Rather, we process individual features, causing us to have worse facial recognition for other-race faces. Exceptions to the own-race rule apply when children grow up in environments where the racial majority is different from their own race. Basically, ORE begins developing in early childhood, from 3 months old to 1 year. It is a learned phenomenon; we don’t show ORE at birth. Although ORE does not completely explain why members of racial minorities are often mistaken for each other, you may feel some comfort in knowing that it is somewhat based in holistic processing and attention.

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Anzures, G., Quinn, P. C., Pascalis, O., Slater, A. M., Tanaka, J. W., & Lee, K. (2013). Developmental Origins of the Other-Race Effect. Current Directions in Psychological Science22(3), 173–178. http://www.jstor.org/stable/44319043

Sangrigoli, S., Pallier, C., Argenti, A.-M., Ventureyra, V. A. G., & de Schonen, S. (2005). Reversibility of the Other-Race Effect in Face Recognition during Childhood. Psychological Science16(6), 440–444. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064246

Michel, C., Rossion, B., Han, J., Chung, C.-S., & Caldara , R. (2006). Holistic Processing Is Finely Tuned for Faces of One’s Own Race. Psychological Science, 17(7), 608–615. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064419

Bar-Haim, Y., Ziv, T., Lamy, D., & Hodes, R. M. (2006). Nature and Nurture in Own-Race Face Processing. Psychological Science, 17(2), 159–163. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40064387

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